Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

How Successful Was Obama’s Trip to Latin America?

Q: U.S. President Barack Obama visited Brazil, Chile and El Salvador on a five-day tour of the region last week, signing a variety of agreements on security, energy, education and trade. Which aspects of the trip were a success and which were disappointments? What could Obama have done better? How did Obama's agenda and speeches during the trip reflect changing political and economic dynamics in the region and what do they indicate for future U.S.-Latin American relations?

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "Although overshadowed by events in Libya and only superficially reported in the United States, Barack Obama's trip to Latin America last week was, by all accounts, a clear success. He vividly demonstrated his own personal popularity and surely raised U.S. standing in the region as well. The president's repeated call for equal partnerships with the countries of Latin America was particularly well received-although many in Latin America have since expressed skepticism about the United States' readiness for partnership. What the United States has to do now is show it can be a reliable partner and ally. Some things that would help are (1) opening U.S. highways to Mexican trucks in accord with NAFTA obligations, (2) presenting the long-deferred Colombia and Panama free trade agreements to Congress for approval, (3) easing the tariffs, subsidies and quotas that protect U.S. agriculture from competition and block economic cooperation with Brazil, (4) pressing forward with some, even modest, reform of immigration policies, and, as repeatedly promised, (5) beginning minimally to curb the flow of assault weapons southward and take serious steps to deal with drug use as a health problem. Even two or three of these would be a good start."

A: Patricio Navia, master teacher of global studies at New York University: "There is a clear lesson from Obama's trip to Latin America. U.S. presidents should refrain in the future from traveling to the region as a whole-unless they attend a regional summit-and instead should focus on traveling to individual countries within the region. Latin America has grown very diverse in terms of economic and social development. The political evolution of the region's democracies-or absence thereof in Cuba-has also taken on different paths depending on the specific countries. Relations with the United States have also evolved differently depending on the bilateral agenda items. Some countries are more concerned with immigration; others worry more about trade or drug policies. Thus, U.S. presidents should accept that Latin America is no longer a homogenous region and they should refrain from seeking to send the same message to all countries. Different agenda items require different messages. Different priorities necessitate designing and implementing different policies. President Obama's trip to Brazil was successful because he focused on bilateral U.S.-Brazilian issues. The visits to Chile and El Salvador were less so because Obama brought a message to the entire region and did not pay sufficient attention to the bilateral issues those two countries have with the United States. Had Obama sought to reach more narrow objectives in his trip, addressing issues that concerned Chile and El Salvador, he would have sent a clearer invitation to other Latin American countries to engage bilaterally with Washington to advance their own agendas."

A: Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: "From a symbolic point of view, and as a way of demonstrating a changed U.S. attitude toward the countries of the region, the president's trip was a great success. Even before he left Washington, the choice of countries indicated that the Obama administration stood ready to embrace the politically and economically successful, if ideologically diverse, democracies of South America while not overlooking Central America's ongoing economic and security problems. There were very few surprises during the trip, although the president and his family were warmly received and no doubt solidified the overwhelmingly positive views of the United States that have characterized the region since Obama's election. As he did at the April 2009 Summit of the Americas, the president focused on partnerships and set out a framework for bilateral cooperation in each of the three countries. The size and stature of the U.S. delegation in Brazil indicated a U.S. recognition of Brazil's rise as a regional and global power, even if Obama was less categorical than some would have liked regarding U.S. support for a Brazilian seat on the U.N. Security Council. In El Salvador, the visit to the grave of Archbishop Romero, whose warnings about U.S. military assistance to El Salvador had been ignored by previous U.S. administrations, was a particularly poignant way to emphasize the importance of human rights and the overcoming of Cold War divisiveness. Unfortunately, the trip did little to raise the profile of Latin America in the United States, as newspaper headlines focused overwhelmingly on events in Libya and Japan. Ultimately, it remains unclear whether the trip will result in any greater willingness on the part of the administration to expend political capital on resolving complicated and conflictive issues of importance to the region, such as immigration reform, agricultural subsidies, import tariffs and the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. In others, the messaging is spot on, but the domestic political climate poses formidable obstacles to substantive changes in U.S. policy toward the region."

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